ABU DHABI — Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff is not worried about his star driver, Lewis Hamilton, talking to Ferrari amid speculation the six-time world champion could move to Maranello in 2021.
Hamilton’s contract with Mercedes is due to expire at the end of 2020, which would leave him free to switch to Ferrari if Sebastian Vettel’s contract is not renewed by Ferrari. Recent reports in Italian media claim Hamilton has already met twice with Ferrari chairman John Elkann, and on Friday, team boss Mattia Binotto said Hamilton’s uncertain contract situation can “only make us happy”.
Mercedes is preparing to enter contract negotiations of its own with Hamilton after this weekend’s final race in Abu Dhabi, and Wolff said he was not worried by the news from Italy.
“I would be totally OK with that,” he said about the meeting between Hamilton and Elkann.
“This is a free world, and I recognise that everybody needs to explore career options and make the best decision for themselves — and this is for drivers and everybody else included.
“So I have zero problems, and racing drivers are always going to try to be in the quickest possible car, and the quickest team is always going to try to have the best racing driver in their car. There is a good consensus between us of what we are trying to achieve.”
Pushed on Binotto’s cryptic quotes, Wolff continued to play down his concerns.
“I actually sat next to Mattia when he said that in a press conference, and he was asked a question about what he thought of Lewis, and he said that he has the highest esteem for Lewis. You can also bet that if his chairman is meeting with him, he is not going to talk badly about Lewis, either.
“So I am totally relaxed about the situation. We need to push very hard to provide the drivers with the quickest possible car, and if we are able to do this, I am 100 percent convinced we will have the best possible driver line up in the car. Everything points to our relationship continuing, but in life, you never know — and therefore, as I said before, I am very open about this.
“I have started to embrace the fact that everybody has objectives and needs to have the best possible opportunities for his career. In that respect, I am absolutely open for everybody to explore options.
“But obviously, my personal priority of the team is to continue this successful journey, and we have been really benefitting from an excellent relationship, and if that ends one day, I would be the first one to cheer.”
Negotiating tactics or a genuine offer?
The situation leaves Hamilton in a strong position going forward. Whether he is in serious talks with Ferrari or not, it strengthens his hand in negotiations with Mercedes for 2021 and beyond.
Speaking after he secured pole position for the final race of the year in Abu Dhabi, Hamilton said he welcomed the positive comments from Binotto.
“I think that’s the first compliment I’ve had from Ferrari in these 13 years [in F1],” he said. “I don’t remember them ever mentioning me ever. So thank you and I’ll take it!
“It doesn’t really mean anything, it’s all talk, but it’s nice that they are finally recognising me after all these years.
“I think it’s never a waste of time to be nice to someone, and as I said it has been a very long time and it’s a team I have always appreciated over the years. So to earn the respect from someone over there [at Ferrari] who is very high up is not a bad thing.
“I think they have got two great drivers as it is and who knows what the driver market is going to be doing next year. I am not really focused on that at this second, I want to finish this season strong. I have got this incredible group of people behind me where I am and I feel I owe it to them to give my heart and my energy 100 percent, particularly as I am still in contract and negotiations haven’t started yet.”
But Wolff says there is no rush to enter into talks. All but three drivers — Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, Racing Point’s Sergio Perez and Renault’s Esteban Ocon — are not confirmed at teams beyond 2020, meaning options are open for both teams and drivers.
“I know we want to have the strongest possible line up in 2021, but there is a full year to go and the silly season is going to start soon. Conversations are going to begin and whether we know our driver line up in April, July or October is not important.”
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen would be an obvious target for Mercedes if Hamilton leaves, but Wolff said his team will not enter talks with another driver before it has clarity on the six-time world champion’s future.
“I think the values in the team are loyalty and integrity,” Wolff said. “They are absolutely number one on the list, and understanding Lewis’ position and objectives will be key for any decision we take.
“So we will not embark on a fishing mission with potential drivers out there before Lewis and I have had that discussion and that hasn’t taken place. That will take place after the season and we will see how that goes and we have a consensual relationship – so we need both sides to be happy.”